PORTLAND -- It wasn't the 3-pointer at home against Kentucky in December that did it. It wasn't the big win over Ohio State at home in January or the home win against Michigan State in February or the 11 Big Ten wins, the most for Indiana since the last time the team made the NCAA tournament (2008).
Defeating those pesky and previously star-kissed Virginia Commonwealth Rams, and getting back to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament: that's what did it. That's what put Indiana into the room with the bluebloods again.
In college basketball, if you have a top-10 national program, Sweet 16s are expected, not hoped for. They carry value in many currencies for a team, coach, fan base and program. Saturday night, Indiana reached its fruition of return when it completed a nine-point come-from-behind 63-61 victory against No. 12 VCU in the Round of 32, capped off by Will Sheehey's baby-touch 14-foot jumper from the left baseline with 11 seconds to go.
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The ball fell through, and now Indiana falls through to the Sweet 16 for the first time in -- can you believe this? -- 10 years. That Indiana team was the one who reached the national title game. Staggeringly, it's just the second second-weekend showing for IU in 18 years.
The renaissance has come a year early (don't fool yourselves, Indiana fans: we all know this kind of run was an expectation next year, not this one), and because of that it's got to feel amazing for those same fans -- and even better for Crean, who gets to keep a proud Indiana tradition alive.
For the past 39 years, every four-year player at IU has made the NCAA tournament. There have been other kinds of droughts for this program, but it's still never had a stretch of tournament absence that most other major-conference teams have endured at some point in the past four decades.
Now he's sending this team to the Sweet 16? It all turned so quickly. How did Indiana win this game? Everybody still seems to be asking it. What Crean harped on: the team felt no pressure to do this.
"Pressure really comes down to, if you focus on it, and you focus on the result and you get away from the step by step [process of winning]," Crean said. "There was no panic. It's them [the Indiana players], it's what they believe they're going to. The way they talked to one another in the huddles and the resolve they had."
This was also a great anecdote. At each of their press conferences, Shaka Smart and Crean pointed out a particular play that altered the end of the game. It was an isolation call for Cody Zeller on the elbow. Crean hadn't run it all year.
Ten minutes earlier, during his press conference, Smart mentioned that it was irregular that VCU wasn't prepared for that specific play. For the first 32 minutes it was clear VCU was headed toward a victory if it kept playing the way it was playing. Then that didn't happen. Because then Indiana's defense, not VCU's, happened. It took control. Forget that 34.2 turnover percentage -- 15 points higher than the Hoosiers' average -- that put IU behind for most of the game. It was Indiana's defense holding a suddenly inhibited, slow-minded Rams' offense that played keep-away and chucked eight 3s that didn't fall in the final 10 minutes of the game. Sheehey's big basket won the game, but he wasn't much of a factor otherwise. Christian Watford and Zeller each had 16. Watford had a career-high four 3-pointers and in the final minutes Zeller seemed to snag every critical rebound to keep IU from falling behind by that one critical basket, a hoop that likely would have put VCU in a game against No. 1 Kentucky next weekend.
The Rams are still alive and one of the dominant stories of this tournament if Rob Branderberg's 3 falls as time expires. But Branderberg's a 29 percent 3-point shooter -- not VCU's best option. The odds win again and VCU does not. Smart said the objective of the play wasn't necessarily to get a 3 -- it's just how it happened.
What a look for Brandenburg, though. Clear, straight on and right in front of his teammates on the bench. Crean's heart had to stop. Smart's, too. Those final do-or-die moments in this tournament hold a lot of things at stake.
Because Brandenberg's 3 did not fall, Smart's future may change while the legacy of Tom Crean grows in Bloomington. "I'll take that shot again every day of the week," Smart said. "It just didn't go."
The Hoosiers limited the Rams to four points in the final 12:30. They also got an incredible coaching adjustment by Crean after the Rams played fast, turing Indiana over once every three times it went down the floor to lead 43-42 at halftime. But Crean recalibrated for the second half, and the Hoosiers forced VCU to play slow (19 points in the final 20 minutes). "Words are hollow after a game like this," Smart said. "There's not a lot that you can say." Here's what Crean had to say: "This game was everything we anticipated and even more. It was really a great game for me as well, because I got to see this game through our players' eyes. They were so locked in and had such great resolve to never panic and to just truly believe they were going to win." I asked Crean what the lowest moment for this program was, and has this program had abysmal months since he took over the crater left by Kelvin Sampson's repeat violations that set IU back four years.
Crean said March 3, 2010, was rock bottom. IU was playing at rival Purdue near the end of its Big Ten season. His 10-21 team lost that game 74-55 but it felt like 104-55. The group was listless and Crean's work wasn't paying off to anything positive. The NCAA tournament was the furthest thing from his mind. But Saturday was the opposite feeling of what Crean had while crouching in those huddles during the Purdue game two years ago. He looked and saw and believed. More importantly: his players had more confidence than him.
"Everybody's better for what they've had to deal with," Crean said. "When I sit and look and these guys, and I look across at them in that huddle, it’s a great feeling." Facing VCU, its March magic, relentless defense and elimination in the face, Crean's team turned on convention and bolstered its tradition. With the win Hoosiers continue on with what’s become one of the most memorable seasons in the program’s history, no matter what happens next.
What does happen next: a rematch with No. 1 Kentucky. The diametric alignment of sports can be so beautifully and perfectly poetic sometimes.